Urban Watercolor Sketching

Scheinberger 'Urban Watercolor Sketching'I’m aware that I get set in my ways so Felix Scheinberger’s Urban Watercolour Sketching made perfect holiday reading when we were in the Dales a few weeks ago. It’s a short refresher course in watercolour, one that I’ll dip into again.

This is an illustrator’s approach and the examples are almost exclusively pen and ink and watercolour rather than pure watercolour, which suits me because that’s invariably the way I work.

The English watercolour  tradition is wistully rural, going back via John Piper and Beatrix Potter to Girtin and Cotman so it’s refreshing to have Scheinberger go through the rudiments of watercolour so briskly and thoroughly from a streetwise, rather punkish perspective.

Considering Colour

It’s a great opportunity for me to reconsider all the aspects of watercolours that I’m familiar and a few that had never occurred to me. For instance, I like the way he champions indigo and Naples yellow; colours which I’ve dismissed because of their apparent disadvantages. Disadvantages which he suggests can be turned to your advantage for certain subjects. Must try them.

As an illustrator I like the way he rounds off the book by touching on page design, developing ideas and the perennial question of ‘how much is your picture worth?’

As for the urban element, I’m afraid that he can’t convince me that I’d enjoy painting a prefab block of apartments in Romania more than an old farm Provence, but I can see what he’s getting at.

Link; Felix Scheinberger; his website, which, by the way, is in German.


buttercup   corollaThis creeping buttercup is growing at the edge of our little meadow but leaves of meadow buttercup are starting to show in the middle.

As you can see from the notes, I’m making attempts to learn a bit more about botany and I’ve just finished reading a book that has been sitting unread on my shelves since the 1970s, Plants in Action, which accompanied a BBC television series.

Dicots and Monocots

Dandelion flower-bud
Dandelion flower-bud

It’s makes a good introduction but inevitably some of the botany is now out of date. Looking at a more recent publication, Dorling Kindersley’s The Natural History Book, points out that three-quarters of the world’s plants, including buttercups and dandelions, are now classified as Eudicotyledons, not Dicotyledons as they were previously.

The old division was between the ‘dicots’, which had two seed-leaves and the ‘monocots’, which had just the one. Some of the earliest flowering plants to appear in the fossil record are now classified as Basal Angiosperms and Magnoliids.

There are some familiar present-day species in these ancient groups including water lilies, bay, star anise and magnolia.

Mallards and Beech Mast

Top end of Newmillerdam woods this afternoon.
Top end of Newmillerdam woods this afternoon.

WE WERE surprised to see so many Mallards, about 50 of them, in the wood at Newmillerdam this afternoon, feeding under beech trees on the slope above the eastern shore of the lake. It has evidently been a good year for beechmast.


moorhen in MidgleyAnd talking of water-birds in uncharacteristic places, we passed a moorhen, pecking at the turf of the grass verge on the double-bend by the Black Bull at Midgley. I imagine that there must be a pond hidden away somewhere nearby.


goosandersThat was on Saturday and on Saturday morning, before breakfast, I had the best bird tick that I’ve ever had while sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea; four goosanders flew across our street, heading towards the Calder.

Although they were a hundred yards or more away, the low morning sun picked out the blocky ‘black and white’ pattern on their underwings. My first thought, even though I knew it was wrong, was Shelduck but a quick look through the book proved that the goosander is the only duck with the white wing-square that I’d seen. Other ducks tend to have streaks or bands of white running along the wing. Even its close relative the Red-breasted Merganser differs slightly by having the white wing-square divided by black line.

goosandersApart from the Mallard, the Goosander is the duck that I see most often on the Calder.

November Woods

Newmillerdam woodsNewmillerdam country park, 9.30 a.m., LIGHTING CHANGES so quickly. In the minute or two that it took to take out my camera, a bank of clouds had risen, dulling the dappled autumnal sidelighting of the path.

By that time the couple with the dog who I thought would add scale to the picture had disappeared so far into the perspective that they look more like Borrowers than hobbits in my picture.

The peacocks at Charlotte’s ice cream parlour, Whitley, have moulted their long tail feathers and are now starting to regrow them. As you can see these are tail-coverts; the stiff tail feathers themselves come down below the rail.

This effect is exaggerated because the only way that I had to steady my camera was to rest it on my knee. The low angle flattens the path which, if I’d been able to take the photograph from eye level, would have led the eye into the composition.


Ducks are a Dabbling

I FEEL BAD walking out to discourage the pair of mallards from making themselves at home in our pond but mallards are doing fine on the river, lakes and dams locally but I’m getting increasingly worried about our local frogs. Will we see them return when the warm weather reaches us this weekend.

Hop Trefoil

THIS CLOVER-LIKE trefoil scrambles amongst grasses and taller herbs. It’s leaves are more elongated than clover. I’m guessing that it’s Hop Trefoil but there are a number of similar species, so I need to take a closer look. One of the advantages of having a patch of meadow at the end of the garden is that it is easy to do that.

Yellow Rattle hasn’t yet shown up in the section of the meadow that I sowed this spring but I can see 10 plants, mainly gone to seed, in a square yard of the established turf that I laid down. It’s a vital part of the wild flower mix as it is semi-parasitic on grasses, preventing them from dominating the meadow.

The Ionian Sea

OUR BALCONY looks out towards the rugged limestone hills of the Greek mainland across the calm (while we were there) Ionian Sea. Every evening and morning there were a few small fishing boats about. I was impressed by the variety of fish at the fish stalls by the harbour; anchovies and sardines, the occasional pipefish, Red Scorpion-fish, still alive but gasping in their crate, which the fishermen warned us were difficult to prepare, a swordfish and other species which looked vaguely familiar but which I couldn’t put a name to. I did feel that some of the fish were rather small, particularly the swordfish which was little more than eighteen inches long including the sword. Hope that’s not an indication of overfishing. If you’ve caught a small swordfish, I guess that it’s then too late throw it back in to grow to adult size, so it might as well be eaten.

Common Wall Lizard, Podarcis muralis, this lizard with an orange underside and blue beneath the chin is the one that we see basking at the edge of the pavement as we walk into Benitses.

Naked Man Orchid

The Naked Man Orchid, Orchis italica, is found throughout the Mediterranean on grassy slopes, as here amongst the olives and cyrpresses, and in heathy garrigue and maquis habitats. Edward Lear was an enthusiastic visitor to Corfu and made watercolour sketches here. These flowers, with ‘arms’, ‘legs’ and anatomical details, remind me of the species Manypeeplia upsidedownia in his Nonsense Botany.

According to Collins Complete Guide to Mediterranean Wildlife, Red Helleborine, Cephalanthera rubra, ‘favours dry, shady woodlands, invariably on calcareous soils’, which is a good description of this clearing amongst the olives.

A Blue Pimpernel

The intense blue put me off but I should have realised that this flower growing by a dry path on an east-facing slope through the olives is a relative of our Scarlet Pimpernel, that grows in similar situations back home. It’s Anagallis foemina.

Grasmere and Langdale

View from our room at the Belsfield, Bowness

WE STROLL around Grasmere village for a couple of hours then hurry back along the riverside path as we’ve underestimated how long we might need to see all that we’d like to see.

I can’t believe that in all the years that I’ve been coming to the Lake District, this is the first time that I’ve visited the village or the famous Heaton Cooper Gallery. Of the founders of this fell-painting dynasty, I think that I prefer the work of the son William (1903-1995) to that of his father Alfred. William’s watercolours can be a little reminiscent of railway travel posters of the 1930s in the way he simplifies the landscape into interlocking arming shapes in harmonious colours while his father introduces more texture but the suggestion of powerful natural forces in the arching shapes, like billowing sails, of William’s work make the fells and the clouds interacting with them look suitably monumental.

We make the pilgrimage at last to the graves of the Wordsworths; William, Dorothy and Mary, at St Oswald’s church.

As we stop for coffee the most conspicuous subject for me to draw is the passing throng of  visitors to the village. In these situations a universal law applies; whoever I choose to draw someone will always come and stand in front of them or park a car in front.

Loughrigg Tarn

We take the narrow road along the hillside to the west of Grasmere Lake because I’d like to see – also for the first time – Loughrigg Tarn (left). The name is so familiar yet in all the years that we’ve been coming here we’ve never visited it.

With Loughrigg ticked off, we soon pass through Skelwith Bridge, a familiar junction on our Lakeland tours, but instead of heading for Coniston or Tarn Hows as we’d normally do, we turn up towards Langdale, passing Elterwater, another lake that I’m not familiar with.


Langdale isn’t on an Alpine scale but it reminded me of the similarly shaped Lauterbrunnen Valley that we walked along in Switzerland last year – a U-shaped valley with a flat bottom contrasting with soaring cliffs on either ride. It didn’t boast the vertically plunging cascades of its Alpine counterpart but Stickle Ghyll and Dungeon Ghyll have their own rugged appeal.

We normally return again and again to favourite walks in the Lakes, usually amongst the ancient Skiddaw Slates to the north of the National Park or the Silurian Slates around Windermere to the south. We’ve tended to miss out on the craggier fells of the Borrowdale Volcanics between.

Stickle Barn, Langdale


One thing that prompted this Langdale tour was a little booklet that we picked up in Grasmere this morning, I-Spy The Lake District.

It’s aimed at children who’re keen on spotting and ticking off the sights of the National Park but it’s also useful as an itinerary for like ourselves who have our favourite corners but feel that we’d like to see more of what is out there.

Returning by the Little Langdale road to Skelwith Bridge, we get another tick for our I-Spy book; Blea Tarn. Another ten points!

Ducks on Ice

SINCE YESTERDAY most of the lake at Newmillerdam has frozen over. Mallards, Black-headed Gulls and Coot have gathered by a small open area no bigger than a garden pond near the causeway across the top end of the lake. A Canada Goose waddles awkwardly across the ice towards the war memorial where someone is feeding the ducks.

We get a better view of the Dabchick. As the main lake is frozen it’s on the inlet channel, along with a few Mallards. While my drawing was enough to serve as a field sketch (even though it was drawn from memory later), I didn’t catch the buoyant character of the Dabchick; not as rounded and buoyant-looking as a rubber duck but not as lean and lanky looking as my sketch, which took on the proportions of an adolescent Moorhen.

I realise when we walk under the conifers where we saw the Siskins yesterday that I drew them (from memory) on pine branches, while in fact they were on Larch. I picked up this branch with two female larch cones on it to draw.